The hunt for the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic must continue. That is the lesson learned after the World Health Organization (WHO) team’s visit to China produced no answers to key questions about how and where the coronavirus started. Team members provided a summary of their month-long investigation in Wuhan, China, during a Feb. 9 news briefing.
In December 2019, the first cases of COVID-19 were reported as “viral pneumonia” in Wuhan. The WHO team discounted the widely believed theory that the virus accidentally leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. Instead, they believe that SARS-CoV-2 first passed to people from an animal. That the team has accepted two hypotheses promoted by China’s government and media makes the report’s impartiality questionable. China has floated the possibility that the virus came from an animal outside China and may have spread on frozen wildlife and other cold-packaged goods.
When the virus began to spread last year, allegations abounded that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which collected extensive virus samples, may have caused the outbreak by accidentally or deliberately leaking the virus into the community. China strongly rejected that possibility. The WHO team said the accidental laboratory leak hypothesis does not explain how the virus was introduced to the human population, and indicated this is an area for future study. Unfortunately, this is akin to giving China a clean chit.
The WHO team concludes rather bureaucratically: “Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research.” This obfuscates the fact that the virus was first identified in China and the only thing to be investigated is its origin there. When experts from 10 countries arrived in China on Jan. 14, the Chinese government put limits on their research into the outbreak and prevented the WHO scientists from speaking with reporters.
The team’s mission was an initial step in tracing the virus’s origin; for example, did it originate in bats before being passed to humans through another species, such as the pangolin or bamboo rat? Chinese state media and scientists have emphasized the theory that COVID-19 arrived in Wuhan through imported frozen food — an attempt to bolster Beijing’s claim that the virus did not originate in China. That is why China for a long time resisted the WHO team’s visit and agreed to receive a delegation only after months-long negotiations.
Reactions to the team’s findings have been mixed. Some opine that the initial findings are only the tip of the iceberg, noting that two weeks is too short of an investigative period from which to draw definitive conclusions. What is certain, though, is that this will lay the groundwork for a longer investigation in collaboration with the Chinese government. Such collaboration can only be successful if the government is fully transparent. One main reason for the WHO team’s inconclusive results is that China did not share complete data. The team requested raw patient data from the earliest cases but received only a summary. The U.S. has urged China to make available data from the outbreak’s earliest stages, saying it has “deep concerns” about the WHO report.
The WHO team was given access to health records in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province from the second half of 2019, to look for unusual fluctuations in influenza-like illnesses and severe respiratory infections, pharmacy purchases for cold and cough medications, and deaths related to pneumonia. The team retrospectively tested some 4,500 patient samples for SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA, and analyzed blood samples for antibodies against the virus. They found no evidence that the virus was circulating in the city before December 2019. The point is, to assess properly whether the virus arrived earlier, it is necessary to track what was happening in the wider community, not just in health facilities.
The WHO team suggested that investigations in Wuhan and nearby areas continue, to try to trace any earlier cases. It recommended analyzing older samples from blood banks in the province and other areas, including antibody tests that might turn up traces of infection. Clearly, more studies are needed to improve our understanding of the possible role of frozen wildlife in viral transmission and whether people can be infected that way. If the objective is to trace the earliest instances of the virus in Wuhan, the next logical step would be to trace its origin locally and not assume China’s theory that the virus was imported from overseas.
The chances of a deeper investigation will depend a great deal on the Biden administration’s geopolitical interest in pursuing the WHO report to its logical conclusion. By itself, the WHO team’s visit to China is a consequence of global pressure, but follow-up action could be marred by the inconclusive report. Lack of data is a factor, but we should not lose sight of the larger picture of China’s control over the WHO. Citizens around the world deserve objective and complete information about the WHO’s recent trip, including the team’s detailed itinerary and who controlled it; when, where and with whom the mission members met, and the information obtained; and whether the mission was subjected to censorship or pressure in any form.
The WHO’s effectiveness in developing and conveying scientific public health information and recommendations depends on political neutrality and full transparency. The organization must be fully accountable and completely neutral in its interactions with national governments, no matter how powerful and influential those governments may be. With the health of the world’s citizens under threat, the WHO’s obligations in this regard are quite literally a matter of life and death.
Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China.